Late in my college career (checkered) my then girlfriend (now orchestral flutist and music prof), Susan Royal, convinced me and several others of our gang to go skydiving. She’d seen a flyer for a place in Seneca Falls, maybe an hour north along Lake Cayuga, upstate New York. She woke me early on a Saturday morning, and since the other guys were going, I had to go. Vastly hungover, I slept in the car, woke to discover I was in a tiny airplane, a snide and mocking instructor reminding us what to do and what to think as we leapt from the strut of the plane: jump, one thousand, arch, one thousand, reach, one thousand, pull, one thousand. Susan was calmest in our group; a big jock from Cornell was most panicked. So the big jock went first. I’ll never forget his face as he let go of the strut, the instructor having pried his strong fingers loose, cursing. I mean, abject, screaming, wide-eyed, hair-in-the-air, no-atheists-in-a-foxhole, complete and utter terror.
I was next, and managed to let go of the strut on my own, completely forgot all the stuff about arching and counting and pulling the ripcord, just did a cannonball, no memory recorded until the chute opened heavenly. It wouldn’t have — I’d done nothing right — except there was a static line attached to my ripcord at one end, to the plane at the other. After me was my friend Jeff, who was perfect, cool customer. After Jeff was Susan, ditto. Then the rural-tragic instructor, who had an eye for my girl.
The jock landed in a swamp a half-mile away from the target. I landed near the hangars, which was only a few city blocks walk back to the lesson area, parachute bundled in front of my vibrantly living self. Jeff landed in the parking lot, on top of his own car, a big old Volvo wagon, not bad. Susan landed square on the target, a big X, and then the instructor landed on top of her. I could hear her slapping his face under there as I ran to the rescue — she didn’t need my help.
The place was closed down a few weeks later after a death blamed on unsafe practices — they were packing chutes drunk, among other violations. I believe some jail time was involved for the owners of the place.
Anyway, afterwards, exhilarated, Susan and Jeff and the Cornell jock and I stopped at the Rongovian Embassy, a very eccentric new bar and restaurant in Trumansburg, more than halfway back to Ithaca. To life! To being alive! To be! The Rongo was one of the only businesses in the little town, which had come to ruin like most of rural America at that time (and of course continuing), just a string of empty storefronts. But the Rongo served as a static line, pulled the ripcord, saved the town from hitting bottom, brought new life. These thirty-five years later Trumansburg’s vibrant again. We college kids, back there in 1974? We vowed we’d go parachuting every weekend for the rest of our lives, but after a few days the high wore off and the fear returned and that was the end of that.
The road to town from my house here on the other side of Maine follows Temple Stream, then, after three miles or so, takes you through West Farmington, which is not exactly a suburb, just part of Farmington, little more than a neighborhood with its own Zip-code, more or less walking distance from the college and downtown Farmington, half a mile or so, tops. But once it was a stop on the narrow-gauge railroad, and a crossroads in its own right, still has a four-way stop at its heart and center. Stores there come and go there with alarming regularity.
West Farmington needs a nickname. How about WestFar? It’s Brooklyn to our Manhattan, or maybe Queens to our Brooklyn — lower rents, student housing, hip (and excellent) video store, couple places to tan and get a haircut, brand new dance supply store (in the old logging supply store), post office, underused grange hall, Army recruiting station, tack shop, and of course Joel Bridges and the controversial-but-beloved, billboard-size, first-amendment-protected letter sign on the front of his house (until recently proclaiming that God would make Farmington his new Jerusalem! No word on what He’d do with WestFar). Before this last spring, the only eats in WestFar were at Maxwell’s store, now Madore’s (and much improved — though people will probably call it Maxwell’s for many decades to come). Pizza, sandwiches, that kind of thing, to go with your gas and six-pack.
The buildings of downtown WestFar are mostly old houses, some with storefronts built in, all of wood-frame construction, many with (sagging) wooden porches, a step or two up to front doors, vaguely reminiscent of Trumansburg, another place that once in the long ago was a prosperous farm village. When I came to this area in 1991, most of the storefronts were empty, the beautiful old Grange building unused, train tracks pulled up, railway abandoned.
Which must be why I was thinking of Trumansburg (nickname, T-Burg), T-Burg and skydiving the other day when I was in Big Mouth Burritos, the new food in WestFar. I’ve eaten there a dozen times or so by now, always great fresh flavors, always an unexpected conversation with someone unexpectedly interesting, often an old friend to sit down with, tons of kids, surprising numbers of new faces. The comparison to Trumansburg, or more specifically to the Rongo, first came to me back before Big Mouth Burritos had even officially opened. The owner-chef, Chuck Snell (a country neighbor of mine up on Porter Hill), had invited a few people to a range-warming preliminary party. During which my daughter, Elysia, 7, had to use the bathroom. While I was looking the other way in there I noticed the bookshelf: Pearl, a Janis Joplin biography; Radical Marketing, being advice for the small businessman; also a couple a thrillahs. Light on a pull string, mop in a bucket, blinds falling on the bias — this was the real thing.
Chuck is a funny, well-read, sweetly opinionated, living-in-the-woods roustabout, a Mainer raised in exile (his father’s from Strong, just up the road). He’s a kind of hippie with the hair buzzed off. He’s pushing fifty, but not very hard (me, I’m pulling fifty). I went in the other afternoon to talk to him a little. The music is loudish, funkadelic that day, Reggae another, Jackson Browne of an evening, plus younger sounds that I can’t name. On the walls local art in a charming range of ability and precision, good bright colors. The gaps are filling in — knife rack here, message board there, more and more supplies on the steel shelving. It’s a small shop, big window on the street (which is the Temple Road, Rte. 43 West just off Rtes 2&4 — worth a couple hundred yards detour!). View of the old train station (now the post office), view of a little park across the way, view of everyone coming and going, view of the four-way stop, that clunky ballet, decent traffic, as the old Town-Farm Road is the shortcut around Farmington for truckers and hunters and campers and locals alike. There’s also the start of the whistle-stop trail, a rails-to-trails right-of-way beloved of bikers and walkers and birdwatchers and ATV riders, snowmobilers, too (burrito anyone?).
Inside, the kitchen is lined up to the right, passage to the bathroom on the left, wall of shelving in between, front door opening into the dining area, which amounts to three tables and a bar made of whiteboard, can of dry-erase markers with which to draw a burrito or record your thoughts. My thoughts were that Chuck looked stressed, a guy who has just let go of the strut, falling at so many feet per second / per second, waiting, just waiting, for the chute to open, for the safety of the chute to jerk him back skyward, then let him soar awhile before landing him gently on solid ground, or at least in a swamp.
Summer is slow in Westfar. Especially with gas costing four bucks a gallon. The economy has been bushwhacked. The college kids are home for the summer, far away. Plus, not all Chuck’s natural customers have found him yet. Plus-plus, well, probably a thousand other factors: it takes time to build a business. It takes cash flow to make it through that time, and if not cash flow, capital. For Chuck, it’s going to have to be flow.
How did our man come to this crossroads?
“I was ready to settle down, somewhat,” he says, shaking the handle of a large pan full of gorgeous-looking falafel (for a falafelrrito), handmade like most of the goodies here.
Somewhat. And so Big Mouth Burrito was born.
He checks on a pan of marinating tofu (teriaki tofu Thai burrito, killer), shakes paprika on a pan of chickens about to roast, peeks in the oven at the pork slow-cooking in there, shakes the falafel again, takes an order from a customer (Tranic Schaubert, a blueberry raker heading up to Rangeley on the torrentially rainy day to see friends, nice guy I’ve seen several times at Big Mouth), reflects:
“I had a bad tooth late last summer. Kinda showed me being a vagabond wasn’t a good long-term survival strategy…. I got a fever, shivering all over…. Completely alone… Okay, I’m getting older, no health insurance, no consistent money. I had to accept help. My dad was willing to finance this venture, to some extent. I saw that this storefront was open. A family friend owns this building. I wanted to stay in the area. Where I grew up—San Diego—you know, the local taco shop was a given—but there was nothing close by in Maine, nothing at all when I first got here. So I had to cook my Mexican food myself. Made my own corn tortillas. Made my own salsa. Made my own everything… It’s a simple cuisine…. ”
Another order, this time from Jesse Lawless, a fiber optics splicer who’s been up all night because they were cutting live fiber up in Orono. He lives in Vienna, Maine, and he’s ready to get there, get some sleep. But first a stop at the crossroads. A single regular customer makes an impact on Chuck’s bottom line. “I need people to eat here once a week—once a week, people, and I’ll make it.”
His helper makes herself lunch—Yaicha Cowell, 25-year-old musician and single mom (son Kyran is 3), a yummy-looking custom tostada salad, big stack of corn tortilla and veggies and salsa and I don’t know what else. She’s tall and very beautiful, self-possessed, used to work at Miguel’s in Bar Harbor, dances a little while she works, always humming and singing back there, or brooding. In a nice way. Who’s not there this day is Buffy Reeve, whom I’ve known from another restaurant in the Big City of Farmington, Soup for You, which her mother-in-law runs and where her husband works. She’s a mother, too, has a fine new tattoo of elephants walking around her wrist, big gorgeous smile, always a hello for me and my daughter. It’s a welcoming place. The third employee is Gwynne Rothert, but I didn’t get a chance to talk to her.
“I can’t get used to people asking me for a job,” Chuck says. And he’s worried about keeping the jobs he’s got to offer. “Most places, they just serve the food from the distributor. Like, instead of making potato salad in-house, giving someone that job, the service makes it, someplace far away, big vats of potato salad, industrialized labor. Here, there’s attention to simple preparation. And it makes a huge difference. Love goes into the food here. Love.”
I give the place five stars, draw five stars right in my notebook, even as Yaicha comes off her lunch break and takes over on the falafel. The love tastes good. The love feels good. It’s inexpensive. It’s carefully made, every step of the way. Me, I’m wild for the tacos, chicken, beef, pork, beans black or pinto, specials. The burritos are delicious, too, and huge. The chili is the real thing, like nothing I’ve ever tasted in Maine, subtle, spicy, delicious. Important bonus: Chuck will make you laugh. He will ululate for you. His enormous collection of hot sauces will make you cry (one is called 100% Pain). Go find him on your way west, or east, or south, or north, he’s right at the crossroads. And if you live near WestFar, be of good cheer! Big Mouth Burrito is here. You too, can be a regular love recipient. We need to see the color of Chuck’s parachute, and once we see that, to help him land well, at least on his car, though he’ll take the swamp, I’m sure, as long he lands alive.
Bill Roorbach is the author of Temple Stream, Summers with Juliet and other essays. He lives in WestFar (West Farmington).